BY DAY MR WEI sold pancakes in Shaanxi, a northern province. By night he led a gang of grave robbers who tunnelled under an ancient temple near his shop. It took 11 months for them to reach the treasures buried beneath, which included gold statues of the Buddha and the bones of illustrious monks. Mr Wei and his cronies went on to dig several more passages from restaurants that they opened in the vicinity of shrines and pagodas. Over five years the looting earned them 12m yuan ($1.8m). Last year Mr Wei was sentenced to 15 years in prison. It was the second time that tomb raiding had landed him behind bars.
China is redoubling efforts to catch grave robbers. Last year authorities arrested 2,400 such thieves and retrieved over 31,000 lost or stolen items, almost three times the number reclaimed during the previous year. The government agency responsible for protecting relics says it is in the midst of a 12-month crackdown on tomb raiders that involves more investment in staff and equipment. Punishments are growing more severe. In 2017 a man convicted of leading a gang of 200 grave robbers was put to death.
Looting antiquities remains an alluring business, nonetheless. Some 90% of all the major tombs of which the whereabouts is known have been plundered at one time or other, says Ni Fangliu, an independent scholar. Sites in Shaanxi province—home to the world-famous terracotta army, among other ancient stuff—have been a target for centuries. But thieves are fanning out to new areas, including Xinjiang in north-western China and Inner Mongolia, in the north-east (a looted tomb in Henan province is pictured).
The robbers are increasingly professional and often well-connected. Some are backed by investors who cover travel expenses and stump up for tools. On one visit to north-eastern China, Mr Ni was approached by a thief trying to raise funds to buy an excavator. He turned out to be the brother of a senior policeman. Rummaging around for shiny stuff is not the only way they make grave robbery pay. Criminals have been known to snatch bodies or funeral urns, then ask living relatives to pay ransom.
Taboos around disturbing old graves are fading, a little. These were once so strong that even archaeologists shied from opening tombs, and some still set off firecrackers before digs to repel ghosts. But in 2006 two popular fantasy novels, “Grave Robbers’ Chronicles” and “Ghost Blows Out the Light”, made it look fun. Grave robbers’ picaresque adventures soon became the subject of films and television shows. That makes some officials queasy. In 2016 a Communist Party mouthpiece urged people not to “glamorise the grave robber” because “digging up ancestral tombs has always been a wicked practice”.
The craze has had the benefit of strengthening public interest in archaeology. In March the state broadcaster live-streamed a dig that has unearthed 3,000-year-old relics from Sanxingdui, an ancient site in Sichuan province. Millions tuned in. Yang Ying, a 25-year-old history buff milling around the Sanxingdui museum, credits “Grave Robbers’ Chronicles” for nurturing her interest in relics. But “lock up the thieves,” she says. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “A dirty business”